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"Dick, I shore will be glad to see Ken," said Jim Williams, in his lazy drawl. "I reckon you'll be, too?"
Jim's cool and careless way of saying things sometimes irritated me. Glad to see Ken Ward! I was crazy to see the lad.
"Jim, what you know about being glad to see any one isn't a whole lot," I replied. "You've been a Texan ranger all your life. I've only been out here in this wild, forsaken country for three years. Ken Ward is from my home in Pennsylvania. He probably saw my mother the day he left to come West… Glad to see him? Say!"
"Wal, you needn't git peevish. Now, if we calkilated right from Ken's letter he'll be on to-day's stage—an' there she comes bowlin' round the corner of the Pink Cliffs."
I glanced up eagerly, my eye sweeping out on the desert, climbing the red ridge to see a cloud of dust rolling along the base of the great walls.
"By Jingo! You're right, Jim. Here she comes. Say, I hope Ken is aboard."
Jim and I were sitting on a box in front of a store in the little town of Kanab, Utah. The day before we had ridden in off Buckskin Mountain, having had Ken Ward's letter brought out to us by one of the forest rangers. We had a room in a cottage where we kept what traps and belongings we did not need out on the preserve; and here I had stored Ken's saddle, rifle, lasso, blanket—all the things he had used during his memorable sojourn with us on Penetier the year before. Also we had that morning sent out to one of the ranches for Ken's mustang, which was now in a near-by corral. We intended to surprise Ken, for it was not likely we would forget how much he cared for that mustang. So we waited, watching the cloud of dust roll down the ridge till we could see under it the old gray stage swaying from side to side.
"Shore, he mightn't be aboard," said Jim.
I reproached myself then for having scorned Jim's matter-of-fact way. After all there was no telling from Jim's looks or words just how he felt. No doubt he looked forward to Ken's visit as pleasurably as I. We were two lonely forest rangers, seldom coming to the village, and always detailed to duty in the far solitudes of Coconina Preserve, so that the advent of a lively and companionable youngster would be in the nature of a treat.
The stage bumped down over the last rocky steps of the ridge, and headed into the main street of Kanab. The four dusty horses trotted along with a briskness that showed they knew they had reached the end of their journey.
"There's a red-headed kid sittin' with the driver," remarked Jim. "Leslie, thet can't be Ken."
"No, Ken's hair is light… There he is, Jim… There's Ken. He's looking out of the window!"
The horses clattered up and stopped short with a rattle and clink of trappings, and a lumbering groan from the old stage. Somebody let out a ringing yell. I saw the driver throw off a mail-pouch. Then a powerful young fellow leaped over the wheel and bounded at me. "Dick Leslie!" he yelled. I thought I knew that yellow hair, flying up, and the keen eyes like flashes of blue fire. But before I could be sure of anything he was upon me, had me in a bear hug that stopped my breath. Then I knew it was Ken Ward.
"Oh, Dick, maybe I'm not glad to see you!" Whereupon he released me, which made it possible for me to greet him. He interrupted me with eager pleasure, handing me a small bundle and some letters. "From home, Dick—your mother and sister. Both well when I left and tickled to death that I was going to visit you… Why—hello, Jim Williams!"
"Ken, I shore am glad to see you," replied Jim, as he wrung and pumped Ken's hand. "But I wouldn't 'a' knowed you. Why, how you've growed! An' you wasn't no striplin' when you trimmed the Greaser last summer. Ken, you could lick him now in about a minnit."
"Well, maybe not quite so quick," replied Ken, laughing. "Jim, I've taken on fifteen or twenty pounds since I had that scrap with the Greaser, and I've had a season's training under the most famous football and baseball trainers in the world."
"Wal, now, Ken, you're shore goin' to tell me all about thet," said Jim, greatly interested.
To me Ken Ward had changed, and I studied him with curious interest. The added year sat well upon him, for there was now no suggestion of callowness. The old frank, boyish look was the same, yet somewhat different. Ken had worked, studied, suffered. But as to his build, it was easy to see the change. That promise of magnificent strength and agility, which I had seen in him since he was a mere boy, had reached its fulfilment. Lithe and straight as an Indian, almost tall, wide across the shoulders, small-waisted and small-hipped, and with muscles rippling at his every move, he certainly was the most splendid specimen of young manhood I had ever seen.
"Hey, Kid, why don't you come down?" called Ken to the boy on top of the stage. "Here's Dick Leslie—you remember him."
I looked from the boy to Ken.
"It's my brother Hal," responded Ken. "Father wanted me to bring him along, and Hal has been clean mad ever since I was out West last year. So, Dick, I had to bring him. I expect you'll be angry with me, but I couldn't have come without him. I wanted him along, too, Dick, and if it's all right with you—"
"Sure, Ken, it's all right," I interrupted. "Only he's pretty much of a kid—has he got any sand?"
"He's all sand," replied Ken, in a lower voice. "That's the trouble; he's got too much sand."
Ken called to his brother again and the youngster reluctantly clambered down. Evidently the meeting with Ken's ranger friends was to be an ordeal for Hal. I seemed to remember his freckled face and red head, but not very well. Then he dropped over the wheel of the stage, and came toward me readily, holding out his hand.
"Hullo, Dick, I remember you all right," he said.
I replied to his greeting and gave the lad a close scrutiny. I should say fourteen years would have topped his age. He was short, sturdy, and looked the outdoor boy. His expression was one of intense interest, as if he lived every moment of his life to its utmost, and he had the most singular eyes I ever beheld. They were very large, of a piercing light gray, and they seemed to take everything in with a kind of daring flash. Altogether, I thought, here was a lad out of the ordinary, one with latent possibilities which gave me a vague alarm.
"Wal, now, so you're Ken's brother," said Jim Williams. "I shore am glad to see you. Ken an' me was pretty tolerable pals last summer, an' I reckon you an' me kin be thet, too."
It was plain Jim liked the looks of the youngster or else he would never have made that speech. Hal approached the ranger and shook hands awkwardly. He was not timid, but backward. I saw that he was all eyes, and he looked Jim over from spurs to broadbrim with the look of one who was comparing the reality with a picture long carried in mind. Of course Ken had told Hal all about the Texan, and what that telling must have been showed plainly in the lad's manner. Manifestly he was satisfied with Jim's tall form, his sun-scorched face and hawk eyes, the big blue gun Jim packed, and the high boots and spurs he wore.
"Where's Hiram Bent?" asked Ken, earnestly. "Hiram's back on the saddle with his hounds. He's waiting for us."
"He told me about them," replied Ken. "Lion dogs, the best in the West, Hiram said. I guess maybe I'm not aching to see them… Dick! My mustang! I forgot him. What did you ever do with him? You know I left him with you at Holston last summer."
"We'll see if we can't hear something of him," I replied, evasively, as if I wanted Ken to meet a disappointment gradually. His face fell, but he did not say any more about the mustang. "Ken, I'm going to sign you into service as a ranger—my helper. Hiram is game-warden, you know, and I've arranged' for us to go with him. He's specially engaged now in trying to clean out the cougars. The critters are thick as hops back on the north rim, and we've got a lively summer ahead of us."
"Sounds great," replied Ken. "Say, what do you mean by north rim?"
"It's the north rim of the Ca–on—Grand Ca–on—and the wildest, ruggedest country on earth."
"Oh yes, I forgot that Coconina takes in the Ca–on. Will we get to see much of it?"
"Ken, in a month from now you'll be sick of climbing out of that awful gash."
For answer Ken smiled his doubts. Then, leaving Jim and Hal, who appeared to be getting on a friendly footing, I took Ken over to the office of Mr. Birch, the Supervisor of Coconina Forest Preserve. As a matter of fact, this rather superior person had always jarred on me. He was inclined to be arrogant, and few of the rangers liked him. I had to get along with him, for being head ranger, it was policy for me to keep a civil tongue in my head. When I introduced Ken and stated my desire to sign him in as my helper the Supervisor looked rebellious and said I had all the helpers I needed.
"Who is this fellow anyhow, Leslie?" he demanded. "I'm not going to have any of your Eastern friends chasing around the preserve, setting fires and killing deer. This idea of yours about a helper is only a bluff. I don't sign any more rangers. Understand?"
I bit my tongue to keep from loosing it, and while I was trying to think what was best to do Ken stepped forward.
"Mr. Supervisor," he said, blandly, "I've only come out to have a little vacation and get some practical ideas on forestry. Please be good enough to look at my credentials."
Ken handed over letters with the Washington seal stamped on them, and Birch stared. What was more when he had read the letters his manner changed very considerably, and he even looked at me with a shade of surprise.
"Oh—yes—Mr. Ward, that'll be all right. You see—I—I only—I've got to be particular about rangers and all that. Now anything I can do for you I'll be glad to do."
Ken's letters must have been pretty strong, and I was secretly pleased to see old Birch taken down a bit. The upshot of the matter was that Ken got a free hand in Coconina, to roam where he liked, and spend what time he wished with the rangers on duty. We left the office highly pleased.
"We'll go over to the corral now and look over some mustangs," I said.
From Ken's face I knew his thoughts reverted once more to the mustang which had trotted its way into his heart. But I said nothing. I wanted his surprise to be complete. Jim and Hal joined us, and together we walked down the street. Kanab was only a hamlet of a few stores, a church, a school, and cottages. My lodgings were at a cottage just at the end of the street, and here, back of a barn, was the corral. When we turned a corner of the barn there was a black mustang, all glossy as silk, with long mane flying and shiny hoofs lifting as he pranced around. He certainly looked proud. That, I felt sure, was because of the thorough currying and brushing I had given him.
Ken stopped stock-still and his eyes began to bulge. As for the mustang, he actually tried to climb over the bars. He knew Ken before Ken knew him.
"Oh! Dick Leslie!" exclaimed Ken.
Then, placing both hands on the top bar, with one splendid vault he cleared the gate.
It did me good to see the way Ken Ward hugged that little black mustang. Somehow a ranger gets to have a warm feeling for a horse. Now, Ken's mustang remembered him, or if he did not he surely was a most deceitful bit of horse-flesh.
"He's fine and fat—in great shape," said Ken, rubbing his hands all over the mustang. "He hasn't been worked much."
"Been down on our winter range for six months," I replied. "I had him brought in this morning, and after the blacksmith clipped and shod him I took a hand myself."
"Ken, I want a mustang," sang out Hal.
He sat on the top of the corral fence, absorbed in the appearance and action of Ken's mount.
"Now, Kid, keep your shirt on," said Ken. "You'll get one. It's just half an hour since you arrived."
"That's long enough. Do you think I'm going to stand around here and watch you have a pony like that and not have one myself?"
"It's a mustang, not a pony," said Ken.
Purcell, the owner of the cottage and corrals, drove up at this juncture, and I engaged him in conversation regarding a mount for the boy and the pack-horses we would need on our trip.
"Wal, there's a bunch of mustangs over in the waterin' corral. Some good ones—all pretty wild. But about pack-hosses—that sort of bumps me," said Purcell, dubiously. "I'm due to go to Lund after grain an' supplies, an' I need my regular packers. I'll let you have one, an' the big bay stallion."
"You don't mean that big brute Marc?" I queried.
"Sure. He's all right, if you handle him easy. I don't know as he'll stand for a pack-saddle—any kind of a saddle—but you might load somethin' on him."
"If that's the best you can do we'll have to take him," I rejoined. "Also I want a good man to take care of the horses for the boys."
"Hire the Indian. He's here now, an' he's the best man to find grass an' water in this desert."
"You mean Navvy? Yes, we'd be lucky to get him, but Jim and Hiram Bent, they both hate Indians."
"Leslie, I don't know of any one else in the village. It's lambin' time now, an' hands are scarce. You'd better take the Indian, for he'll save you lots of trampin' round."
"I'll do it, Purcell. We'll pack early in the morning and get a good start. Now, take the lad over to the corral and get him a mount."
"Come on, youngster," said Purcell to Hal.
"Come on an' let's see what kind of an eye you have for a hoss."
Hal leaped off the fence and went with Purcell toward the other corrals. Jim started to go with them, but Ken detained him.
"Fellows," said Ken, "before we get any farther I want to tell you about my brother. He's simply as wild as a March hare. I'm not sure, but I suspect that he's been reading a lot of Wild West stuff. The folks at home have humored him, spoiled him, I think. Father is sort of proud of Hal. The boy is bright, quick as a steel trap, and just the finest, squarest kid ever. But he has a fiendish propensity for making trouble, getting into scrapes. Now that would be bad enough back home, wouldn't it? And here I've had to bring him out West!"
"I shore am glad you fetched him," replied Jim.
"I'm glad, too, Jim, until I think of Hal's peculiarities, and then I'm scared. That kid can hatch up more impossible, never-heard-of situations than any other kid on earth. Hal imagines he can do anything. What's worse he's got the nerve to try, and, to tell you the truth, I've never yet discovered anything he couldn't do."
"Can he ride a horse?" I asked.
"Ride! Say, he can ride standing on his head. Now, Dick and Jim, I want you to do all you can to look after Hal, but understand, the responsibility for his safety and welfare doesn't rest upon you. I'll do my best for him; the responsibility rests upon me. Much as I wanted Hal with me, I advised and coaxed father not to send him. But Dad thinks the kid can do anything a great deal better than I. He told me where I could go Hal could go. So we'll make up our minds to have our hearts in our throats all the time on this trip and let it go at that."
Our attention was attracted by a shout from the other corral.
"Hyar, Leslie, come over," called Purcell.
We crossed over, slipped through a couple of gates, and edging round a cloud of dust saw Hal in the middle of a corral holding a beautiful mustang by the mane.
"Leslie, the youngster has picked out Wings, the worst pinto that ever came off Buckskin Mountain," declared Purcell. "An' he says he don't want an' won't have any other mustang here."
"Sure! What did I tell you, Dick? This is where the toboggan starts. Ha! Ha!" yelled Ken.
"What's wrong, Purcell? That pinto looks fine and dandy," I said.
"He is a dandy," returned Purcell. "He's a climber, an' he can beat any hoss on the range. But he can't be rid except when he wants to be rid. There's no tellin' when he's liable to make up his mind to rare. It's not buckin' so much—he's no bronch—but he just runs wild when it pleases him, an' then it takes a Navajo to ride him. I say he's no mount for a tenderfoot."
During this speech of Purcell's I watched Hal closely, and saw that, however he occupied himself with Wings' glossy mane, he heard every word. And when he glanced up I believed that what Purcell said had absolutely decided him. The lad looked keen to me, and deep as the sea. But he was not fresh or forward, and despite my uneasiness I began to like him.
"Kid, will you take my mustang?" asked Ken.
"Nix," answered Hal. "I'm going to ride Wings and beat the life out of you and your mustang."
I sent Purcell for a saddle, and he fetched one presently and put it on Wings.
"Youngster, seein' as you are set on the pinto, all-l right," said Purcell, as he fastened the cinch.
Then Hal looked straight at the rancher.
"Mr. Purcell, I've had ponies at home and I could ride them," he said. "But this'll be new to me. Will you give me a few tips?"
That pleased me immensely. Whatever Hal was, he was not a fool. I noticed Jim Williams wore an expression as near akin to excitement as it was possible for that cool Texas ranger to wear. Perhaps in Jim's mind, as in mine, the lad was being measured. Purcell, too, appeared to like the boy's frankness.
"I don't know as I kin give you many tips," he said. "Fact of the matter is you must try to stick on, that's all. Just keep your toes in the stirrups, so you can git them out quick. Then squeeze him with your knees for all you're worth… Wait! Make sure where you're going… There!"
Hal sat firmly in the saddle. Wings champed the bit and turned his head, then shook it, and suddenly lifting his hind hoofs he kicked viciously. We scattered and climbed the corral fence. When we turned round the pinto had come down on all fours and squared himself. With head down, humping his back, he proceeded to buck with startling quickness, and tossed Hal like a feather. The boy hit the ground with a thud, and slowly got up, considerably shaken. Then he went up to the mustang, now standing quietly.
Quite a little crowd of villagers, mostly boys, had collected to see the fun, and some of the latter were inclined to make remarks at Hal's expense. One of them, a boy I knew to be a rascal, poked his head between the bars of a gate, and yelled derisively at Hal, to the immense delight of the other lads. Hal eyed him a moment, but he did not say anything. This made the fellow all the bolder, for he climbed the fence, from which he directed more remarks.
"Mr. Purcell," said Hal to the rancher, "I hadn't got ready that time. I wasn't expecting it. Now how must I treat him? My way at home was to coax a pony, be decent to him."
"It'll pay best in the end to be decent to a hoss," replied Purcell. "Be kind, but firm, an' use your spurs."
"I haven't any spurs; I never used any."
"You'll need them out here."
Hal mounted the pinto again. Wings wheeled about, pranced, stood up pawing the air, snorted, and then, dropping down, he began to run round the corral. He zigzagged against the fence, and slowing down he took short jumps, kicking at the same time. Then he squared himself again and lowered his head.
"Look out, Kid!" yelled Ken.
We all shouted warnings. Hal was prepared, and for the space of a few seconds, while the bucking pinto pounded a dusty circle in the corral, he kept his seat. But a new move, a sort of sidestepping buck, flung him against the fence, and he fell all in a heap. It was a hard fall, but the boy got up. A lump began to show on his chin, and blood, his knuckles, too, were bloody.
"Lookie here, Redhead," called out the smart youngster who was amusing his comrades by making fun of Hal. "Can't you ride no better'n that? Haw! Haw! You can't ride or nothin', Redhead! Redhead!"
"Say, Johnny, can you ride him?" asked Hal, coolly.
"Yep, you bet."
"Come down and let me see you do it. I don't believe you."
Johnny eyed Hal rather doubtfully. Hal looked very much interested, very friendly, but his eyes were cold and hard. The Western lad hesitated, and finally driven to it by the bantering of the other lads, he dropped off the fence. Vaulting into the saddle, he rode Wings round the corral, kept his seat easily while the pinto went through his tricks, and altogether gave an exhibition of riding which would have made most any Eastern lad green with envy.
"You did ride him. I was wrong. I thought you couldn't," said Hal, walking slowly up to Johnny as he dismounted. "You're a crack horseman."
Suddenly Hal leaped at the fellow, and at the same moment Ken yelled and tumbled off the fence. I was too amazed to move. Jim Williams's mouth gaped and he stared in speechless delight.
Hal had the youngster jammed against the fence and was banging him.
"You called me redhead and tenderfoot and sloppy rider!" cried Hal, swinging his fists.
Then Ken reached them, pulled Hal away, and rescued the already bewildered and bloody-nosed lad.
"Dick, I knew it, I knew it," said Ken, leading the lad out at the gate. "The minute Hal asked that boy to ride the mustang I knew what was up. I couldn't say a word. Hal always makes me speechless."
Williams was shaking so that he rattled the top bar of the corral, and Purcell roared. If it had not been for the shame and distress in Ken's face I would have yelled myself. For that bantering youngster had long ago earned my dislike, and I was glad to see him get a little of his just deserts.
Then I saw Hal look through the fence at all the strange lads. He was certainly the coolest piece of audacity I ever saw.
"I wasn't born in a saddle, see?" he said. "At that I'll bet in a month I can ride with any of you. But there's one thing I can do right now—so don't any of you call me redhead again."
"Hal, shut up, and come out of there," called Ken.
"Not on your life," replied Hal, promptly. "I'm going to ride this iron-jawed mustang or—or—"
Hal did not complete the sentence, but his look was expressive enough.
Jim Williams leisurely dropped off the fence into the corral. While removing his spurs he looked up at Ken, and his eyes twinkled.
"See here, Ken, you're doin' a powerful lot of fussin' about this kid brother. You leave him to me."
That from Williams occasioned me immeasurable relief, and though Ken still looked doubtful there was much gladness and gratitude in his surprised glance.
Jim sauntered over toward the center of the corral, swinging his spurs.
"Kid, I reckon you an' me had better strike up a pardnership in ridin' pintoes, an' all sich little matters appertainin' to the range."
Jim changed the strap lengths on his spurs and handed them to Hal.
"Put these on," he said. "I reckon they're too long for you, an' mebbe '11 trip you up when you walk. But they're what you need on horseback."
Hal adjusted the spurs, and took a few awkward steps, digging up the ground with the big rowels.
"They'll be as hard on me as on the pony," he said.
Jim captured Wings, and tightened saddle-girths, shortened stirrups, and, slipping off the bridle, let the pinto go.
"Now, kid, listen. These Western hosses an' mustangs can size up a man, an' take advantage of him. You've got to be half hoss yourself to know all their tricks. The trouble with you jest now was thet Wings seen you was scared of him. You mustn't let a hoss see that. You must be natural, easy, an' firm. You must be master. Take the bridle an' go up to Wings, on the left side. Never again try to straddle a hoss from the right side. Don't coax him, an' don't yell at him. If you say anythin', mean bizness. When you get him in a corner go right up, not too quick or too slow, an' reach out to put on the bridle as if you'd done it all your life. When you get it on draw the reins back over his head reasonable tight an' hold them with your left hand, at the same time takin' a good grip on his mane. Turn the stirrup an' slip your left toe in, grab the pommel with right hand, an' swing up. Start him off then an' let him know who's boss. If he wants to go one way make him go the other. Don't be afraid to stick the spurs into him. You're too gentle with a hoss. Thet'll never do in this country. These sage-brush hosses ain't Eastern hosses. Make up your mind to ride him now. He'll see it. An' if he bucks soak him with the spurs till he stops or throws you. An' if he throws you get up an' go after him again."
"All right," replied Hal, soberly. And picking up the bridle he went toward Wings.
The pinto squared around and eyed Hal as curiously as if he had actually heard the advice tendered by the Texan. Probably he heard the clinking spurs and knew what they meant. With a snort he jumped and began to run round the corral. Hal slowly closed in on him, and at length got him in a corner. And here Hal showed that he could obey coaching as readily as Ken. Walking directly up to the pinto, he bridled him, and with quick, decisive action leaped astride.
Then he spurred Wings. The pinto bolted, and in his plunging scattered dust and gravel. Not liking the spurs, he settled into a run. Hal was now more at ease in the saddle. It was not so much confidence as desperation. Perhaps the shortened stirrups helped him to a firmer leg-hold. At any rate, he rode gracefully and appeared to good advantage. He pulled Wings, and when the fiery pinto snorted and tossed his head and preferred his own way a touch of spur made him turn round. In this manner Hal ran Wings along the corral fence, across the open space, to and fro, successfully turning him at will. Then as he let up the pinto wheeled and spread his legs and tried to get his head down.
"Hold him up!" yelled Purcell.
"Now's the time, kid!" added Jim Williams. "Soak him with the spurs!"
Hal could not keep the pinto from getting his head down or from beginning to buck, but he managed to use the long spurs. That made a difference. It broke Wing's action. He did not seem to be able to get to going. He had to break and bolt, then square himself again, and try to buck.
"Stick on, Hal!" I yelled. "If you stay with him now you'll have him beat."
We all yelled, and Ken Ward danced around in great danger of being ridden down by the furious pinto. Like a burr Hal stuck on. There were moments when he wabbled in the saddle, lurched one way and then another, and again bounced high. Once we made sure it was to be a victory for the pinto, but Hal luckily and wonderfully regained his seat. And after that by degrees he appeared to get a surer, easier swing, while Wings grew tired of bucking and more tired of being spurred.
Purcell jumped into the corral and began to throw down the bars of the gate.
"Kid, run him out now!" shouted Jim. "Drive him good an' hard! Make him see who's boss!"
Wings did not want to leave the corral, and Hal, in pulling him, lifted him off his forefeet. Another touch of spurs sent the pinto through the gate. Hal spurred him down the road.
We watched Wings going faster and faster, gradually settling into an even gait, till he was on a dead run.